Research shows deadly skin cancer increases risk of other cancers

NEW research has revealed those diagnosed with the world’s deadliest skin cancer have a high risk of being diagnosed with a number of subsequent primary cancers, including melanoma, lip, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers.

Queensland has at least double the rates of Merkel cell carcinoma on record – yet many Queenslanders are unaware the rare cancer even exists.

The research from Cancer Council Queensland, University of Queensland, and Curtin University shows Merkel cell carcinoma occurs both before and after a range of other cancers at a rate higher than expected in Queensland.


Cancer Council Queensland spokesperson Katie Clift said the study examined the risks of being diagnosed with cancer either following or prior to a Merkel cell carcinoma diagnosis.

“Our research found people initially diagnosed with cancers other than Merkel cell carcinoma were about two and a half times more likely to get the deadly skin cancer,” Ms Clift said.

“The risk of being diagnosed with melanoma, lip, head and neck cancers, lung cancers and myelodysplastic diseases increased significantly both following and prior to a Merkel cell carcinoma diagnosis.

“Following an initial Merkel cell carcinoma diagnosis, the risks of developing female breast cancer and kidney cancer were also elevated.

“For those diagnosed initially with colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma or lymphoid leukaemia, the risk of being diagnosed with a subsequent Merkel cell carcinoma was also increased.

“One theory is that the association between this deadly skin cancer, melanoma and lip cancers is caused by sun exposure.”

Merkel cell carcinoma is a highly aggressive form of skin cancer. Relative to the general population, 60 per cent of Queenslanders die within five years of being diagnosed, compared to just 7 per cent of melanoma patients.

“As with most cancers, the best chance of survival is early diagnosis. This is particularly important for Merkel cell carcinoma as these tumours tend to grow rapidly,” Ms Clift said.

“Our research also highlights the need for the development of clinical practice guidelines that will aid in the diagnosis and management of Merkel cell carcinoma.

“Merkel cell carcinomas can be difficult to identify, and are sometimes confused with other skin cancers.

“It is therefore imperative that Queenslanders get to know their own skin – if they notice a new spot or lesion, or a spot or lesion change in shape, colour, thickness or elevation – they should visit their GP immediately.

“Merkel cell carcinoma patients require careful and ongoing follow-up, and we hope to see better outcomes in future as a result of this research.”

The study results suggest that several shared pathways are likely for Merkel cell carcinoma and other cancers, including immunosuppression, UV radiation, and genetics.

More information about Cancer Council Queensland is available at or Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20.